In Naples, where pizzerias and pizza-loving tourists abound — this is the birthplace of pizza, after all — it can be easy to overlook everything else that this town's rich, flavorful culinary tradition has to offer. Culinary Backstreet's man on the ground Amedeo Colella gives us the lowdown on the city's best local eats, from mouth-watering fried street food to liquor-soaked cakes. Hungry already? Then you'll want to book CB's street food tour when you're next in town.
NAPLES – Naples is at once a sophisticated ancient metropolis littered with monuments, a city dramatically perched between Mount Vesuvius and the sea, a place of palaces, and, of course, the hometown of pizza. But unlike many other Italian cities with such a formidable legacy, Naples is not an open-air museum, and its food scene is not ruled by pizza alone.
It's a city that's gritty and loud, beautiful and rough around the edges, accessible and exotic — in a word, charming. This is a city with a pulse so strong and, more importantly, a culinary heritage so divine, that we've always found ourselves wondering: Why don't all roads lead here?
Those who do take the road to Naples will find a city where tradition still rules. Naples prides itself on San Marzano tomatoes, grown nearby and considered by many to be the world's best, and buffalo mozzarella, the creamiest around. Cultivation methods are written into law to regulate producers, making it impossible to cut corners on quality. This abundance of produce then finds its way from fertile volcanic soil into the neighborhood markets, and locals take it home and cook it with care according to ancient recipes.
For those interested in exploring Naples beyond pizza, here's a menu that will carry you through the day and the places you should feast.
Ricotta and provola cheese, pork, and tomato fried in a light dough.
Everyone knows pizza was born in Naples. What they don't know is that fried pizza existed here before baked pizza. And although Neapolitans have transformed traditional pizza-making into an art form, their skill at turning out fried pizza is even greater.
As with so many local specialties in this city, it's hard to say who makes the best fried pizza. There are street vendors in every corner who make a really good pie. But in the maze of narrow streets between Via Amerigo Vespucci (Via Marina) and Corso Arnaldo Lucci, you'll find Friggitoria Masardona, home to the city's best fried pizzas.
Enzo Piccirillo and his sons prepare the dough, while his wife fries the pizza to perfection using traditional tools. They make fried pizza and nothing else — a light dough enclosing a mixture of ricotta, cicoli (fatty pork), provola cheese, and tomato. A bit of pepper is added, and then Enzo punches the sides of the pie to ensure the filling won't leak. A few skillful, fast movements — part of the family legacy — and the pizza is immersed in hot oil for what seems like only a few seconds. After a few deft spins by the wife at the fryer, the pizza is ready, scorching hot and delicious.
A ham and cheese pastry topped off with a sweet cream puff dough.
Sometimes you crave salty, sometimes you crave sweet. But what about those times when you want both? At these moments, make your way to Antico Panificio e Pasticceria Circo Pace for a rustico soffiato.
This perfect mix of salty and sweet is made of short pastry and pâte à choux (cream puff dough) and stuffed with ham and cheese. Its lower half recalls the typical Neapolitan rustico (a savory cake), while the upper part, the innovative feature of this pastry, resembles a huge hat (this is where the pâte à choux comes in).
The recipe is one of the secrets of Ciro Pace bakery, a local gastronomic institution founded by Vincenzo Pace and his son Ciro in 1926. Since then, multiple generations of bakers have followed in their footsteps. Today, 42-year-old Vincenzo Pace, the fifth generation of the baking family, is the one with his hands in the dough.
Black pepper and sweet toasted almonds wrapped in lard.
The rustic Neapolitan tarallo, made of 'nzogna (lard), pepper, and toasted almonds, is a true delicacy. It's considered the first popular snack in Naples, a bite that combines the punch of black pepper with the sweetness of almonds, the whole thing united by lard. It's a dangerous combination for the waistline, but it's delicious.
Taralli are offered to celebrate a new home, shared with friends during soccer matches, enjoyed with a significant other along the rocky shore, given to guests at parties, and taken aboard boats. (It's the very height of yuppie chic to eat them accompanied by iced spumante while out at sea.) Taralli were once eaten dunked in sea water, but that's not the case anymore.
Bakeries, pastry shops, delicatessens, and gourmet shops always have fresh taralli, but the temple of Neapolitan taralli is on Via Foria, in front of the Botanical Garden: the shop of Don Leopoldo Infante, tarallaro since 1940. I'll either eat my taralli here, or go out on a typical Neapolitan Sunday outing — strolling down Via Caracciolo and around Diaz Square, picking up taralli and beer to enjoy by the sea.
A paper cone filled with fried, bite-sized snacks.
There's a saying in Naples: "Anything fried is good, even the soles of shoes.” You may laugh, but I agree. Frying may have a bad rap in some parts of the world, but it can add a richness and flavor to any type of food (and, perhaps, even footwear). Think of a dull, bland zucchini or eggplant: When fried right, it becomes a pleasure.
I normally get my fried fix by ordering a cuoppo, a paper cone filled with crispy morsels, from pastacresciute (also called zeppolelle), small pieces of fried pizza dough, to panzerotti, a soft potato croquette filled with salami and mozzarella, and arancini, golden and crispy rice balls. These symbols of Neapolitan fried street food are our typical mid-morning snack – while going about our morning errands, we munch on the small bites of fried deliciousness that are swaddled in the plain brown paper.
One of the best cuoppos in Naples can be found at Friggitoria Vomero. This fry house on Vomero Hill is a Naples institution, bringing happiness (and greasy fingers) to generations of Neapolitans since 1938. Run by three generations of the Acunzo family (another branch of the family tree is famous in the Neapolitan pizza world), Vomero continues to use the secret recipes of founder Raffaele Acunzo. Today, his children Filomena, Antonio, and Patrizio are in charge, but little else has changed.
Potato cake layered with mozzarella, scamorza, ham, and salami.
Neapolitan cuisine is an impure thing, the result of culinary influences from every part of the old continent. One of the most famous dishes this blending of cultures has produced is the Neapolitan potato gattò, a potato tortino rustico (a tall, square cake) with layers made of mozzarella, scamorza, ham, salami, and more.
A baroque dish, this gattò (from the French word for cakes, "gateaux”) transforms the simple potato into a true miracle of gastronomy. The most famous gattò is the one that comes out steaming from the kitchens of Cibi Cotti Nonna Anna, a little, family-run restaurant tucked in a corner of the La Torretta Market in Mergellina, a maritime area of Naples that has inspired dozens of poets and singers over the years.
Founded in 1963 as a takeaway kitchen, the small trattoria only added tables in the 1980s. Today, during the lunch rush, it's always crowded and loud. When an order is ready, the chef gives a shout. The trattoria's regulars, people who work at the marina and local businessmen, go to the counter to pick up their plate rather than waiting for the waiter. They consider it to be like the kitchen in their own home.
Served traditionally with simple ingredients.
Neapolitan cuisine encompasses such a variety of dishes, ingredients, and preparations that sitting down for lunch in Naples is always a feast of smells, tastes, colors, and sensations. Despite this, the ultimate dish in Neapolitan cuisine is the combination of traditional pasta with simple ingredients like beans (pasta e fasule), chickpeas (lagane e cicere), or potatoes (pasta e patane).
An exemplar of this is Mangia e Bevi (the aptly named "Eat and Drink”), my ideal spot for eating out in Naples. No frills, all substance. Originally it was just a wine cellar selling bulk wine, the type of place that kept a running tab for workers heading home, but then it grew and started serving food. Here, the array of simple dishes varies from day to day and so do your dining companions (the ample tables offer communal seating).
The menu always includes soups, risotto, and pasta with legumes. Mondays are pasta with beans, Tuesdays are pasta with lentils, and Fridays are pasta with potatoes and provola cheese. You choose a first course, second course, and side dish, all for €8. The food arrives immediately, perhaps not in the right order, but that's all part of the experience. You can eat the salad before the meat course and then the pasta. Whoever said that pasta had to be a first course?
A small yeast cake soaked in a syrup of liquor.
In the late 18th century, Maria Carolina of Austria, the Queen of Naples and wife of Ferdinand I, sent Neapolitan chefs to her sister Marie Antoinette in Paris to learn the techniques of French cooking. As a result, many dishes that today are considered fundamental to Neapolitan cuisine had their origins in France, like rice sartù (from French sourtout), potato gatò (from French gateaux) and the king of kings — the babà, a small yeast cake soaked in a liquor syrup.
In Naples, the babà quickly rose to prominence, and Neapolitan bakers perfected the time-consuming process of making this pastry by hand with high-quality local ingredients. The best place to taste the height of babà perfection is Pasticceria Capriccio in the historic city center. The recipe of pasty chef Raffaele Capparelli is top secret, handed down from father to son. While no one knows how they do it, we do know that Capparelli has created one of the best and biggest babàs in the city. It's tall, soft, and perfectly moist.
For decades, Pasticceria Capriccio has prepared this super babà. Super, because it's so large – quality and quantity, just the way I like it. The babà may look like it's meant for more than one person, but Capriccio's babàs are so light and airy that I can easily eat two on my own.
A shortcrust pastry filled with eggs, cheese, custard, candied fruit, and aromatics, topped with a lattice design.
Like the Proustian madeleine, sweets can stir up all kinds of feelings in the minds of those who eat them. In Naples, struffoli (small, round doughnuts glazed with honey) and cassata (sponge cake with ricotta and candied fruit) speak of Christmas, while chiacchiere (sugar-dusted fritters) and sanguinaccio (literally "blood pudding,” but actually made of chocolate) bring to mind Carnevale.
And then there's pastiera, whose very scent and taste make us think of Easter and spring. These days, pastiera can be made all year long, not only when the wheat has just sprouted, as was the case for our ancestors. Yet when Easter approaches, all Neapolitans dream of this cake. Pastiera is the queen of Neapolitan sweets, even if its composition is relatively simple: Shortcrust encases a filling of ricotta cheese, eggs, boiled grains of wheat, custard, candied fruit, and aromatics, including orange flower water, all topped with a lattice made from the same pastry.
For me, the modern benchmark is the version made by the pasticceria Scaturchio (established in 1905) in Piazza San Domenico Maggiore. That said, everyone has his or her own beliefs about the "true” recipe for pastiera and the superiority of the pastiera della mamma. "Look, you have mistaken memories,” my wife often says to me. "Your mom's was terrible.” She's wrong of course; my mother's pastiera was the best.
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